Good Morning Friartown,
There may not have been a game this week, but plenty of fireworks have exploded over Providence, Rhode Island, as the Big East as we know it seems to be collapsing before our eyes. Once upon a time, Dave Gavitt created the Big East as a place for basketball-centric schools who shared a basketball-focused vision, so how fitting that over forty years later, the Big East might be destroyed by a group of seven teams looking to return to that vision after those around them decided to chase the almighty dollar.
The “Catholic Seven” have played a very small part in the destruction of the conference. They are just picking up where Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Rutgers, and Louisville started. How can you feel secure in a conference where two of your key members (Connecticut and Cincinnati) have publicly pleaded with opposing conferences for an invitation to become a member? How are you as a conference supposed to feel when the replacements for some of the best programs in the country over the past decade consist of mediocre counterparts, schools like Tulane, Central Florida, and SMU?
I don’t want to burden you with the same thoughts you have probably seen scrolled across the bottom of your TV for most of the past week. However, I would like to pick apart an article written by Nate Silver. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Silver, he is one of these new-age statisticians. He believes in saber-metrics and more modern ways of tracing data in sports and in politics. Through his website FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver has been publishing his findings for quite a few years, and his blog that can be found via the New York Times has served as a source of information for me as well.
With that, we shall explore Nate Silver’s blog post, A Smart Breakaway for Big East Schools, and some associated thoughts in the Crunch …
Maybe I like Nate Silver so much because he supports many of my own positions. For example, this week I got a little frustrated by this line of thinking found by some of our rivals at KeaneyBlue.com, a message board for URI fans, which consisted of “Why would any team want to join the new Big East? Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, DePaul, that is a bunch of garbage.” So I did a little research … How many of you care for the work of Ken Pomeroy? His data is used by most Division 1 basketball programs through the country, as he looks to compare teams on a possession-by-possession basis. If you have never seen his website, make sure to check it out here (KenPom.com).
Now, when smaller Atlantic 10 programs heard that their conference was open to holding all seven Catholic School programs, they were giddy at the thought, until they realized the Big East had no interest, despite having “those garbage programs.” So do you know how Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and DePaul, how they compare to the Atlantic 10 programs over the past five seasons?
The average number I got was by doing a weighted scale of 22%-21%-20%-19%-18% to try to give some sort of accurate portrayal of how people might presently view the program. Let’s be honest, do we really think Xavier cares that we made an NIT in 2009? No, they just want to know how strong the programs they are joining could be.
Regardless, Ken Pomeroy’s numbers would seem to indicate that outside of DePaul, the rest of those Big East schools are a considerable upgrade over the bottom half of the conference. If you take most of that half of the conference and combine them with the Big East schools, that will lead to a very competitive conference.
There is also the argument on money. Due to a rights agreement signed last year by the A-10, current programs earn $350,000 per season. However in a new conference, most conservative estimates would have the Big East schools earning at least $1 million per season. And of course, there was this nugget that came from Pete Thamel in a piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated last week:
The Big East basketball schools make about $1.6 million annually ($26 million divided among the 16 schools), but that number was tied to strong brand names like Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh. Conversations with multiple consultants and television executives about the future of a 12-team Catholic conference have yielded a range of figures. The Big East schools could easily get their current financial number and likely get $2 million annually with a new deal. At the most optimistic ceiling, the teams could get $3 million per year, although that’s considered Pollyannaish. The ironic part is that by the Big East leaving its exclusive television negotiating window with ESPN and CBS this fall, it essentially opened up the basketball schools to test the market. There are multiple interested television suitors in this more competitive environment and a number of strong potential markets — Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago.
It really is not hard to see for a
multitude of reasons why schools like Xavier, Butler, Dayton, St. Louis, and others would be very interested in making the jump to the new-look Big East. And that brings us back to Nate Silver. It is his belief through the numbers that:
A conference composed of these seven teams, along with select others that do not sponsor Division I football programs, could offer a men’s basketball league that was roughly as competitive as that of major conferences like the Pacific-12 and the Southeastern Conference. The alternative, to remain attached to the other members of the Big East, would put these schools at risk of being associated with a conference that would come to be regarded as second-tier.
Sure, this new-look conference won’t be the Big East as we know it, but how could Silver ever believe that it could be as good as the Pac-12 or SEC, a better than a conference with the football schools? Mr. Silver took the time to break down all of this data using Jeff Sagarin’s metrics, another metric I prefer over that of the RPI measurement, one which I find to be outdated. He breaks down the past decade of performance for all members of the Big East for next season the way it currently stands:
What do those numbers mean? They are used to compare one program to another, basically like a spread. So according to Jeff Sagarin, if you had a decade of PC teams play a decade of Tulane teams, they would be favored by 8.12 points on a neutral court.
If you want to keep it relatively simple, just go look at the numbers I gave you from my Pomeroy analysis. Any schools added would be better than Providence, St. John’s, and DePaul, but by keeping USF and adding those four other schools, they are weighing you down. We’ve heard for weeks how bad Tulane is, how bad SMU has been. These are not schools you want to build a basketball conference around, and what is worse, how are they trustworthy? What keeps UCONN and Cincinnati grounded to the Big East? You lose them, and that basketball conference becomes a virtual joke because of the programs you are tied to.
And if you need some numbers for comparison, these are the Sagarin values of the potential new-Big East additions over the past decade:
If you believe in those numbers, there is absolutely room for this conference to be stronger than the alternative, and even if you don’t believe that, it will be safer, as you won’t have to worry about programs jumping ship, as there will be no better basketball-only conference out there, via money or strength of conference. There are benefits to breaking away. Sure, we are all going to miss those matchups with UCONN, but Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, all other games we enjoy, they are gone, and it is time to wake up and realize the Big East as we see it this year does not exist anymore.
There are some interesting questions though, as it all can’t smell like roses. Who is PC’s rival in the new Big East? St. John’s? Georgetown? Well unless Rick Pitino and JTII are coming back through the tunnels, does that hatred still exist? People may be concerned about attendance, but as Providence becomes a contender regardless of conference, hopefully the fans will show up to support the team, and not to see the opponent. That starts with the students, and than works on out to the casual fans. When does the break happen? Under what conference name do they operate under? John Rooke and Kevin McNamara did not seem optimistic on the GoLocalSports 103.7 morning show Saturday morning. They made sure to reiterate that if the seven schools withdraw from the conference, than the name stays with the remaining programs (UCONN, USF, Cincy, Temple, and whoever joins them), and if they vote to dissolve, there are other issues. KMAC made sure to state several times, if these schools want the name and MSG, they may have to pay big money to retain them.
At least we know there is interest out there to join, so much so that the A-10 schools met on Saturday afternoon to “solidify their conference.” The belief was that Xavier, Butler, and St. Louis had “one foot out the door,” and that Creighton had also reached out from the MVC as an option to solidify the West.
Plus, it’s also a bonus to see UCONN and URI squirm a little bit.
These were some reassuring words from Mr. Silver’s piece, ones that I will use to echo my own thoughts and to end this week’s version of the Crunch, as regardless what the approach is, there are options:
By breaking away from the conference, the seven basketball schools would be more in control of their own fate. In fact, they would go from seeing their conference preyed upon to being the predators of the college basketball landscape. The new conference would be highly attractive to any college that did not sponsor a Football Bowl Subdivision team but wanted to play in a top-tier college basketball league.